When boarding planes destined for some far away place, perhaps your own personal Shangri-La where monks and children spend their days talking to God and playing with monkeys, pack light. Learn how to say “water”, “please”, and “thank you” in the native language. Apologise profusely. And listen. Listen with all your heart, and give your friends life lessons and maps in place of souvenir snow globes.
Then come home, which is what I was doing when…
“Ma’am,” the voice said, “Would you mind if I took the window seat, please?”
His words came slowly, a drawl that faded into the clouds during take-off. Once the plane had reached its cruising altitude, Louis turned his head away from the window, shook my hand, and began to explain to me what he liked.
“I really like J-Lo, Mary-J, anything they play on the radio is fine.” He gestured proudly to his astonishingly small mp3 player, the product of Japanese ingenuity. “I just bought this last week. You can’t get them in the States yet.”
We were both going home after having lived in Japan for over a year. We swapped stories about our lives as gaijins in the land of the Rising Sun, confessing moments of confusion, and sprinkling the conversation with the occasional Japanese phrase or word.
“You were a sensei!” Louis slapped his knees and gave out a loud laugh. “I though you were twelve or something!” Giggling, I told Louis all about Miharu, the small town in the country I worked in, and the names of the preschool kids I had grown to love.
“I know the words to every song Barney has ever written!” I pronounced proudly, accepting the lunch trays the air stewardess handed to me over the fellow sleeping on my left. Louis heisted with his chopsticks, reluctantly bringing the food to his mouth. I asked him if he was going to miss the yaki soba.
“Nah, no way. Japanese food doesn’t settle to well with me.” Louis drawled, setting down the chopsticks and pushing the tray away. “The food was good on the base, but I’m looking forward to getting back home.”
“What did you do in Japan? Were you a teacher?” I scooped rice into my mouth with the shoveling technique preferred by most Miharu Elementary school kids.
“No, I’m in the army. Just finished my three years.” Louis began to explain his job, and with a pen drew out a small map of the base on his napkin.
“This was where the movie theatre was at, the store. We ate here. I lived here.” His finger moved rapidly over a napkin covered in stick boxes. “I never really went off base. You could drink right here.” His finger landed on a small box.
“Yea, you could drink that, too.”
Right. The army. The United States Army. Had it not been for the softness I saw in Louis’s dark eyes I might have started grilling him about, well, America and its armies. I am a political science graduate with a peace badge on my sleeve, I believe in non-violence, I am against foreign occupancy. I read the news. I know the stakes and what’s going on. But before I started in on Louis, something told me… “don’t”.
“Why did you join?” were the words I said instead of “Jesus Christ, Louis. I can’t stand American Foreign Policy and its armies!”
“There aren’t many jobs out where my family is in Louisiana…maybe as a security guard or something like that. But I don’t want to do that.” Louis told me. “I don’t want to work at Walmart my whole life.”
We talked a bit about college. “I had some college on the base. They had these courses soldiers could take but…” his nose shriveled up like he tasted something bad. “It’s just not there, you know?”
I didn’t, really. I loved school, and I wanted Louis to know where he could go with school, if only in his mind. Thoreau, Gandhi, D.T. Suzuki, Rumi. The man sitting next to me grinned shyly and slid the movie headphones over his ears.
“The movie is starting,” he whispered. I leaned back in my chair, looking over at Louis, thinking. Always thinking, thinking him up a new life till I fell asleep.
“Can I buy you a cookie?”
The airport in Atlanta is perfect for people who are waiting to go somewhere else. The food court caters to America’s fast-food nation diet, with the occasional basket of two dollar apple sitting by a registrar. Magazine stands, duty free shops, televisions sets blaring the weather for somewhere else. Feelings of boredom and anxiousness pass, travelers pass by, conversation is somehow filtered. Louis led me over to the Starbucks where several of his army buddies were waiting in line, and offered to buy me a cookie. I bought us each a cup of hot chocolate and sat down at the table, the pacifist in disguise.
And that’s the time I was in Atlanta, waiting for my connecting flight home with a dozen or so American soldiers dressed in fatigues eating cookies and drinking hot chocolate. Not one of them talked about patriotism, only two had been to college, and the girls seemed more preoccupied with their hair and nails than watching the news on the television in the corner.
Something was happening near the Gaza strip.
One girl at the table just turned 19. She wanted to get a perm.
Boys talked about cars.
Girls laughed at what the boys said.
Louis went up to buy another cookie. He just told a girl that he was thinking of staying with the army. He looked jealous of the kids in fatigues, and didn’t like being the odd one out.
These are all just kids, I thought to myself.